Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Christmas Surprise

Let's rewind to the beginning and watch the 3-digit counter spool down to 000.

It's December, 1980 in Oakland, California. I am a nine-year-old Beatlemaniac who's just had to come to terms with the murder of John Lennon. On my Christmas wish list alongside the usual Kenner Star Wars toys are Shaved Fish and Double Fantasy.

What I don't expect to see under the tree is one of the technical wonders of the age: a brand new RCA Selectavision VCR!

I can't find much about this model online; it was the VDT-625 model, which debuted in 1979 and retailed for around $1300 by the end of 1980. Built to last, this sturdy top-loading machine was our main VCR until the summer of 1987, and then served as a backup for copying tapes. It played tapes for close to 20 years, only losing its ability to record in EP mode.

It came with a chunky remote control attached by a thick wire, which would let you play, pause, and watch in slow-mo. You could program up to 14 channels which were tuned by small knobs inside the fold-down front panel. These corresponded with the 14 buttons on the front right of the console. On the right side, a small tray slid out where you placed transparent green numbers for each station, which would be lit from below when slid back beneath the channel selector buttons. Our main channels would have been 2 (independent KTVU), 4 (NBC affiliate KRON), 5 (CBS affiliate KPIX), 7 (ABC affiliate KGO), 9 (PBS station KQED), and 44 (independent KBHK).

Another cool feature was the audio dub button; which would let you overdub new audio to a video being played back, either from the internal tuner, or (and this was the fun part) from an external microphone plugged in to the front of the unit. In future posts, you'll see how my friends and I took advantage of this feature.

I'm not sure where or when my father purchased the VCR (I bet he still has the receipt), but he kept it hidden in his upstairs bedroom for a couple of weeks until the 25th. During that time, he tested it out with the first recording, on December 14th, 1980. Only the final 11 minutes survived, as the tape was rewound and erased with another show before long:

NBC was in the last year of its contract to air the iconic Sunday night anthology series, Disney's Wonderful World (formerly Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color). That night's episode had its origins in the ABC run of Walt Disney Presents. Originally aired December 19, 1958, the Christmas special From All Of Us To All Of You ended up being rebroadcast eight times, of which this was the last network airing.

The content of the special was updated to reflect the latest Disney product; for example, this one has a clip from the 1970 film The Aristocats, which was about to be re-released in theaters on December 19, 1980. In comparing this version to one on YouTube (presumably from the DVD of The Aristocats), I noticed a few racially-insensitive lines of the song "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat" were edited from the broadcast. However, some questionable dialogue remains ("Oh, boy ferras, ret's rock the joint!").

This is followed by Jiminy Cricket's rendition of "When You Wish Upon A Star", from the original 1958 special, with various characters gathering around enraptured (Donald looks bored out of his skull) to listen. The show concludes with footage from an earlier Disneyland special, with a choir singing something ("Silent Night" is dubbed in) in front of the Main Street station, followed by announcer Gary Owens wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Then we get to the good stuff - original ads for Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion, GE's incredible Brew Starter (Janet is MAKING COFFEE!), and a bizarrely-animated holiday ad for Levi's. NBC announcer Casey Kasem touts some cartoon Christmas specials starring the Berenstain Bears and Little Rascals, while the Osmonds team up with Greg Evigan's chest hair and Doug Henning's mustache. And who could forget Peggy Fleming and Tony Randall's ice dancing special!

The credits for Disney's Wonderful World retain the 1979 copyright (the same show had aired December 23, 1979), and after an ad for The Aristocats, Casey is back to tell us about NBC's Wednesday night lineup: Real People, Diff'rent Strokes, and Facts Of Life. I watched all of those shows regularly, not that I'm proud of it.

Incidentally, From All Of Us To All Of You went on to become a holiday tradition in several Scandinavian countries, and still pulls in record viewing numbers in Sweden.


  1. Watch it every year on Swedish TV. It's also shown in Norway. Of course, the Disney Christmas Special hosted by the McCartneys is a holy grail. A friend of mine got a Beta vcr in December 1980, and recorded a lot in the days around Lennon's death. I didn't have a vcr in the house until 1981, when my mother's boyfriend brought one into the household.

  2. Wait... I'm older than you are?

    Meanwhile, my big Xmas item that year was Wings Over America, as I'd seen Rockshow in the theater on Sunday, December 7.

    1. I think I got Wings Over America for Easter '77 or '78, as I remember listening to it while eating jellybeans. Never did get to see Rockshow in a theater (and it's not showing anywhere near me this time around).

  3. Wow, can't believe I'm 2 years older than DinsdaleP!!!

    For Xmas of '80, I got my own copy of "Imagine" (which my Dad already had) and....strangely....Judas Priest's "British Steel" for Xmas that year! Also got Atari that year! And I think the hardcover version of "I Me Mine"!